Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do we expect too much from television?

We are living in a world that is experiencing a creative boom in terms of television and the arts.  There are more good to great shows on now than at any other time in this year of 2012.

We've gotten to the point, in fact, where we judge people because of what they watch.  Ask someone their favorite show, and if they respond with anything other than Mad Men, Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, and we immediately dismiss them as credible talking heads.

God help them if they say Jersey Shore.

But with all the television shows out there, it's not possible for them all to be great.  Yet do we, as a viewing audience, have a right to expect more than someone can develop?

It's not enough to just entertain now, shows need to teach.  They need to tell us something about ourselves, our world, our family or God.  There is a necessity that philosophical ideas be explored if a show wants to be considered great, and a show cannot just simply rest on its laurels.  It needs to constantly evolve and push the envelope, or we will turn on it quicker than when Hulk Hogan turned on the Hulkamaniacs by siding with the nWo.

Every episode of every show is dissected and subjected to ridicule throughout the web, by legitimate television critics and by the blogosphere.  It's impossible for someone to do something on a show that is not scrutinized in depth.  We know when characters are being killed off, when buildings are getting blown up and when showrunners are being fired.

So is this a good thing and is this fair?  Do we actually expect too much from our television shows?

I don't think it's too much to ask that a show has more going on than action.  I don't think we necessarily have to be satisfied with a show that doesn't make us think.  For years, television had the rap that it was mindless and the evil stepchild of its more evolved and acceptable film counterparts.  Television was never supposed to exhibit good and evil, it was never supposed to show a knowledge of God and morals, and it was never supposed to act as a character study.

It was an escape from reality, nothing more than fluff to pass the time before the nightly news.

That is not the case any more.  We look for morals, we look for religion, we look for meaning.  The themes are just as important as the story now, and if those themes don't mesh with our worldview, we don't want any part of it.

The most common way that people find this website is by searching for a particular show + Catholic, or + moral.  We want shows that embrace our Catholic faith.  We want shows that feature virtuous characters, characters that are good because they follow the Natural Law.  And when those shows don't feature such characters, we want to know if there is some other redeeming quality.  Do people treat God as the omnipotent creator of the world?

Shows that outright reject God or reject his goodness and thus reject any goodness of humanity are not worth watching for many people.  But more importantly, the shows that don't even address such elements are even worse.  The universe of a show needs to recognize this in some way.

We don't expect too much from our shows, we expect those shows to reveal something about the God-created world we live in.  We expect anything we watch, read of listen to to have a knowledge of the existence of God, and that those who embrace him should be rewarded, and those who reject him should be punished.

Shows with Godly themes (however those are presented) will always be the most popular, because we live in a theocentric world, whether people accept that or not.  We want to see how other people present their beliefs in freedom, sin and redemption.  We would love every show to be about something greater than just the crime of the week, but we also know that is not possible.

In the meantime, we can continue to look for our values, for the values of the Church, to be represented in the world around us, and when those presentations make us think and contemplate God, then they have accomplished the mission of any form of art.

And that is why we love tv.  And how can we ever expect too much from a medium that is already providing us with examples of how everything mentioned above is being accomplished?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mad Morals

So this is what a bleak and dark series looks like.

Mad Men, having just wrapped up its 5th season, will look to win its 5th consecutive Emmy no doubt.  But it will do so against the stiffest competition yet (eligible this year will be Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Luck and whatever network show the voters feel is necessary to self-promote), and it is by no means a sure thing

There was more fluctuation in character than in any other season, as some people evolved, and some people took the low road.

Don Draper - Perhaps the biggest deviation of character, Don was no longer the man who would come home late at night or lie to his wife about where he was after work.  Instead, he was the one sitting at the bar alone, brushing away advances, while his coworkers were engaging in illicit activities.

Whether this can be attributed to his new marriage to Megan or to the fact that Megan knew about his past as Dick Whitman, Don was a changed man.  He wasn't consumed with work, he didn't have to prove to everyone that he understood advertising (and thus the human condition), but he was rather more interested in spending time with his wife.  He shifted slightly back towards his old self when Megan took up acting and stopped working at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, but he still turned his life around, at least temporarily.

I don't necessarily take the final scene of him sitting at the bar with the women as a sign that he would return to his former womanizing ways, either.

Peggy Olson - Peggy has always had the need to fit in, while at the same time possessing the wish to stand apart.  This has led her to try different things, experimenting with what could be seen as non-virtuous activities.  But she finally decided she needed to emerge from Don's shadow, left SCDP and became head of creative at a rival firm.

Pete Campbell - Pete continued his evolution into Don Draper Jr. complete with winning clients over with this pitches and cheating on Trudy with whatever woman he could get his hands on: sorority girl, friend's wife, you name it, he thought he loved it.

Pete always was a bit of a weasel, and has always looked up to Don.  The show has always done a good job, though, of making Don likeable, something they have never done with Pete (and by the way, this is not a criticism, as this is clearly on purpose).  Pete also lacks Don's self-awareness, not realizing that he is the way he is because he is unhappy.

Roger Sterling - Getting a divorce from his second wife is just another of the soul-searching things Roger does in season 5, as he further attempts to find out who he is in this world.  Once he sold the original Sterling Cooper, he discovered that he was nothing without his work place.  He had built that, but he has nothing now, and this leads to Roger experimenting with LSD, to sleeping with Joan (albeit that was season 4 and earlier) to his transgressions with Megan's mom.

Lane Price - The saddest storyline of the season was, without a doubt, Lane's suicide.  And it's even sadder that it was done over money, and that's it.  He had good friends to watch the World Cup with, he had a good wife and a loving family, and he seemed like he was happy with where he was.  He even punched out Pete Campbell, that has to count for something.

This isn't even touching Harry Crane's cavorting with Kinsey's hari krishna not girlfriend, Bert Cooper not doing anything, Betty Draper wearing Lee Adama's fat suit, Sally and that doofus boyfriend, Joan getting rid of her husband before prostituting herself out to get Jaguar, and all else that was in this season.

And for the record, I place Mad Men third on the list of shows on television right bow, behind Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

REVIEW: The Newsroom

HBO - Sundays 10/9c

Aaron Sorkin returns to the world of television with a new drama focusing on, you guessed it, a newsroom.

Employing fictional news anchor Will McAvoy, a man slightly resembling Bill O'Reilly without being overly right wing, we are given a glimpse behind the scenes of McAvoy's news show as it deals with the fallout from an anti-America is great rant.

1.  Does it entertain  me?
Sorkin has a certain style to his writing, as evidenced by the style over substance quick pace of The Social Network.  It's a writing and directing style that is flashy and looks nice, and also serves to cover up possible flaws in a show.  Some people really enjoy this, while others can leave it behind, wanting nothing more than to get through the episode.

The writing is good, however, and the acting is good.  Jeff Daniels drops his Dumb and Dumber act and goes the serious route.  He is able to carry the rants of McAvoy that are necessary for establishing the show and the character as a blowhard.

The focus of the first episode is getting McAvoy's show back up and running after a vacation, and then dealing with news of the BP oil spill in the gulf (using real events in a fictional setting is a good device to bring the audience in).  We get to see phones ringing, sources tested, people talking fast and waking faster.  It's all very hectic and fast-paced, which is where Sorkin's writing shines.

However, the glaring problem with the show is that at the end of the day, it's still a show about a newsroom.  Similar to David Milch's Luck, The Newsroom is attempting to bring us into a world that we are familiar with on a surface level (we have all seen the news, I'm guessing), but don't know about the inner workings.

The problem is that Sorkin doesn't have the same command of language or character that Milch does, and so at the end of the day, you're just watching a show about a newsroom.  And there are numerous times when I found myself checking the clock, because at times it does drag if this isn't a world you care about or want to care about.

2.  Is it realistic?
As far as I know, yes.  The people in the room seemed to be acting accordingly, and there was nothing too dicey going on.

Of course, none of this could be real, and it's all made up and I wouldn't know the difference. 

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
The opening scene is McAvoy answering the question, "What makes America the greatest country in the world?"  He points out the many flaws, the poor education scores, the booming deficit, and everything else facing our country now.  It's well-written by Sorkin and well-delivered by Daniels.  This pointing out the flaws of your own country is the closest thing to immoral behavior in the pilot.

There are a few instances of swearing in the episode, but nothing that would make you run out of the room in horror.

There is no nudity and no sex.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
There is an allusion to a past relationship, and inferences of a current between two employees, with an instance of sexual talk.  But other than that, there is no indication of divorce, affairs or adultery.
The Newsroom is going to find an audience because Aaron Sorkin is on the short list of showrunners with a following.  It is stylish, sometimes compelling, sometimes boring.  It has the making of a good show, but I don't know if it has the makings of a great one.

Grade: B+

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Self-Importance of The Killing

There's a promo that constantly runs for The Killing that has detective Linden saying, "Can you ever really know a person?"  This is set to a collection of scenes of Rosie Larsen running around, smiling and being happy.  The ad companies are making it out that this is a series based on identity, who a person really is, and if those around them are able to truly know them.

That sounds like a series I would watch.  Unfortunately, that was not The Killing.

I'm not sure if a network has ever put out a show that treated their audience with such contempt.  The writers all assumed we were idiots, and that we watched those show because it was good, when in actuality, one hour of television and one father's broken-hearted screams for his daughter are what sucked us in.  From there, though, it was all down hill.

We never learned to care about Rosie, and it never seemed like she was truly a person to be missed.  Really, we still have no idea who she is and who cared about her.  Was she a high-class hooker?  A cocktail waitress?  Someone who helps out local boys and girls clubs?  And in all these places, was there really a person she cared about or that cared about her?

The show made many missteps along the way, the most grievous of which was making us wait 26 hours to find out that her Aunt Terry killed her accidentally.  She didn't know it was Rosie in the car that she pushed into the river, with the hope that her lover would fly off to Vegas with her and never return.  No, she was ok with it being a random girl screaming in the trunk, but her morals kick in when it comes to her daughter.

26 hours.  That's longer than 24 (that's really just a simple math problem.  And I'm not even a math major!  I did have a calculator, though).  The difference is that 24 usually had 3 or 4 mysteries in the course of a season.  The Killing had one mystery.  There was one thing going on.  And don't tell me that we had the mystery of who framed Richmond, because that was solved right away.

More crap was thrown in, more shoddy police detective work (Bunk and McNulty would have solved this in 3 days).  Linden and Holder were thrown off the case, then given FBI clearance to look at the construction site of the casino, while still off the case, then thrown off the case that they weren't even on, then commended by Duck Phillips for a good day's work.  That took 26 days.

We had to sit through pointless conversations, red herring after red herring, Stan Larsen being allowed to roam free even though he had just beaten a school teacher to death, Linden's whiny son being sent to live with his father and not her current Cylon fiance, three women in the show named Reggie, Mitch and Terry (It's Pat would have a field day with this).

And in all, what are we left with?  A show that will probably get a 3rd season that even less people will watch.  A showrunner who compared her lack of a season 1 ending to The Sopranos.

Most of all, The Killing is forgettable.  It will end up as a joke.  Who killed Rosie Larsen?  In 10 years it will be a question during bar trivia night about little-known television shows.

The Killing thought it was something more, it thought it was going to be among the top 5 shows of all time.  It might not even be in the top 5 on its network.  But the writers treated it like it was the most important show ever to be made, and they were the most important writers in the history of the world.  I feel bad that I wasted so much of my time watching this show and trying to figure out who killed Rosie Larsen.  I spent most episodes checking the clock trying to figure out when it would be over.

Because I didn't care.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Killing the Theories, Finale version

Dish network ran a promo during last week's episode of The Killing, that unless you call Dish right now, Dish is going to drop AMC, and with it you will lose The Killing.  They actually used that show as the reason not to lose AMC.  Not sure that was a good idea, because during this episode, as with all episodes, I said, "I wouldn't miss much."

I probably would've used Breaking Bad or Mad Men myself, but I'm not the ad wizard who came up with that one.

This week, we learned that both Jamie and Gwen are possibly involved with Rosie Larson's death.  That's fine, at least we knew of them last year.  But what's going to happen if one of these two end up being the murderer?  I can almost guarantee that the evidence and motivations won't match up.

So let's look at the most common possibility.

Charles Widmore did it.  He stole Gwen's keycard, borrowed her car that she had used to go to the yacht club, and he was brokering a deal with Chief Jackson.  Nothing else really makes sense.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that it didn't happen in the world of the writers.

This show doesn't deserve any more of my words.

Friday, June 8, 2012

REVIEW: Longmire

A&E - Sundays 9/8c

All the major cities have been taken, so crime dramas are now taking to the backwoods.  Longmire is set in Wyoming, so that this at times looks like a Western in terms of setting.  It doesn't have the feeling of a Western as in the Old West (Deadwood is the last legitimate Western, although Hell on Wheels could be labeled as such).

No matter how it is dressed up, though, Longmire is a procedural, and it is not apologetic about this fact.  This is all fine and dandy, of course, if it wants to be lumped in with other crime shows with a unique main character (in this case, Walt Longmire, played by Robert Taylor) who is the rough and tumble local sheriff whose wife just died.  He's clearly tough and a good guy, and he has a "my way or the highway" kind of demeanor.

1.  Does it entertain me?
The initial comparisons are going to be to Justified, FX's backwoods crime show.  The problem is that Justified is vastly superior in every way.  Better lead, better acting, much better writing.

What Longmire wants to do is to create a world that is different than ours, the Wyoming way.  It never truly succeeds in this, though, especially not in the way that Justified set up the world of Kentucky and the various mob families.  Maybe this is the difference between Kentucky and Wyoming, though.  Wyoming just isn't that interesting.

Taylor does an admirable job as Walt, and Katee Sackhoff isn't given enough screen time to give her character much personality.

The mystery of the week is only marginally interesting, and it's really not enough to keep you coming back.  CSI is an expert at those types of stories, where the reason you tune in every week is the murder and subsequent forensic investigations.  In order to distinguish yourself from that, you need something else to bring viewers back, whether it be characters or dialogue or emotion.  Longmire has potential for some of that, but in the pilot, it mostly fizzled.

Oh, but it does have Lou Diamond Phillips.  I know, I thought he was dead, too.

2.  Is it realistic?
Yeah, I can see a crime like that happening in Wyoming.  Guys are always shot in the back while visiting trailers disguised as trailers.

Everyone behaves appropriately, so I really have no issue with that.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
Crimes are punished, the good guys win.  People don't think hookers are appropriate, which is always good news, and there is no sign of extramarital sex.  There is also no swearing, so it is relatively safe family viewing.  Unless your family doesn't like semi-boring shows.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
Walter actually seems like a pretty moral and virtuous man.  He's the only character we get into in the first episode, but so far so good.

Again, there isn't any sex or affairs or cheating, and this doesn't seem like the kind of show that will challenge these beliefs.
Longmire is a typical summer show, not a lot of depth or mystery, but a standard procedural set in Wyoming.  It is family friendly and safe for viewing.  The problem is that a summer show really needs to be able to keep you inside on a nice summer evening or make use of the DVR.   Luckily, though, there's not a lot on in the summer to take up room on said DVR.

Grade: B-